There are bigger problems in this world, but one of the things that worries me is knowing I have friends whose handwriting I’ve never seen.
I’m aware that there is an entire generation who may never have penned, sent or received a hand-written missive in their lives, though a lack of physical mail has certainly resulted in a lessening of my own existence. I’ve checked my email five times so far today; I can’t recall when I last opened my letterbox. How did the world get too busy to write? And how did it happen to me?
Growing up in a small country town in the early nineties, mail was commonplace. For a start, it was cheaper to buy a stamp than make a long-distance phone call which could in turn trigger a sky-high bill. It also gave you something to look forward to in a life that was so far removed from everywhere else. Letters were a bridge, or stepping stones, to other places. One of the best things about school holidays was being home to watch the postie arrive. The worst thing ever was when they sped straight past your letterbox, as if you didn’t exist.
As both a teenager and adult who had access to the internet, I continued writing and sending letters to people I knew who had moved away, or whose zines I had read and enjoyed. By now it was possible to email, but as any letter-writer knows, a computer screen is a cheap simulacrum for someone’s soul. Perhaps it was because I was painfully shy and locked in by silence, but the act of writing a letter felt close to addiction: words I’d kept stored under my tongue for too long fell across the page urgently with their truth. Letters became mail art, the envelopes themselves a kind of narrative that could reveal as much as the pages tucked inside. One pen friend stuck a photo of their latest piece of street art: THE NEED TO CRASH CARS WITH ME, TO TEAR UP PAVEMENT, BECAUSE WE WERE BEAUTIFUL to the back of the envelope, which in turn I placed on my bookshelf. And there were so many others.
Even in a world where we let heavily-edited Instagram photos tell our stories, a yearning to communicate still exists. Jakob Herrmann, founder of PenPal World, a website that allows people to make friends across the glove, tells me that his members are constantly contacting him asking for the opportunity to send physical letters to one another. “Being inspired by all this my team and I are working on developing a system which will allow members to find other members who are willing to send real letters through regular mail,” he says.
Despite this, Herrmann personally doesn’t believe that has been an increase in the act of letter-writing itself. “So many new social media websites have emerged, and most people are attracted to the instant gratification instead of taking the time to hand-write and mail letters,” he adds.
This is a shame considering that research from Princeton University showed that — letters or not — writing by hand is good for you. Its study revealed that adults who made notes longhand compared to on a laptop were better able to process and understand information.
It should come as no surprise that the University of Washington discovered that children who use their hands to write, not type, were doing better in the classroom. “What we found was that children until about grade six were writing more words, writing faster, and expressing more ideas if they could use handwriting — printing or cursive — than if they used the keyboard,” said University of Washington professor, Virginia Berninger.
Andrew, a 30-something lawyer with a love of Proust, and I found one another on the internet, but our correspondence quickly turned to paper, which was fitting given that he felt so close to fiction. “If you ever feel the inclination to pen me a short note, even a slip of paper with ‘the quick brown fox…’ my home address is set out below,” he wrote.
How could I resist such an invitation? The fact that I was working in an office sandwiched directly in-between both his home and work made the whole situation even more compelling. I could have hand-delivered my letters if I wanted. On one occasion, the woman at the post office asked why I was even bothering to send something to someone who lived just a two-minute walk away? Couldn’t she see that this was another way of making our cold city more surprising, more liveable?
Andrew’s handwriting was as delicate as ruins: words crumbled before they even began and disintegrated into one another but I generally understood everything he’d written and hoped my own words might sing canorously to him in return. Given our close proximity, it was inevitable that we address the elephant in the room and meet before we collided in the street. Our two meetings weren’t disastrous: he was incredibly patient and kind to someone so introverted; but, face to face, it did seem like we were each in the presence of a stranger and needed to start from scratch. On the few occasions I spied Andrew in the distance, I would keep walking or walk away, because without a pen, I felt wordless and dry. Simply, my existence was better confined to ink. It still is.
For many years, I kept all the letters people had sent me in a Doc Martens shoebox that grew and grew until the sides broke and I had to tape it back together to accommodate so much paper. On lonely Saturday nights, before I’d been introduced to The Smiths, I read and re-read them even though I could recite many word for word without even unfolding the pages. Lots are gone now, thrown away in an act of defiance. Nostalgia can be a curse if you let it, and I didn’t want its dusty breath to keep choking me.
Still, I would have felt like the luckiest person in the world to have received a note or card stamped from somewhere as far-flung as Lord Howe Island or Greenland, just two of the places I travelled and sent mail from. The knowledge that some of my missives were wasted on people who did not stick around, and would have been pulped and trashed a million times over by now, is almost too much for me to bare; but then again making friends has never been my strength.
So, if I can’t have letters, what else is left? On my birthday last year, a friend gave me a novel as a gift. I didn’t read the blurb, pulled the cover straight back to find a brief few words, written in such elegant ink on a blank page. Staring at them made me feel a new closeness, as if our connection had transcended throwaway texts or conversation fillers and was now something etched in stone.